Spitfire Audio Bernard Herrmann Composer Toolkit
Not a company to relax on its laurels, Spitfire Audio has extended its Kontakt-based orchestral library collection with a rather bold and stylistic homage to one of the world’s best-known film composers. But can a recreation of the sounds of the 60s be relevant in a modern arrangement? Let’s check out Bernard Herrmann Composer Toolkit.
Paul Thompson describes the library well in a tutorial video, that this is not intended to be a traditional-sounding orchestral instrument, but rather an inspirational collection of tools to recreate the way Herrmann combined instruments to create his signature sound. The healthy dose of synthesiser patches included should tell you immediately this is not your run-of-the-mill old orchestral collection.
First, a little background. Bernard Herrmann was an American composer best known for his collaborations with Martin Scorsese, Aldred Hitchcock and Orson Welles. If you are unfamiliar with the name, you will surely remember the classic shower murder scene in Psycho with the piercing high-pitched string jabs – classic Herrmann use of dissonance and tension in a score that only used strings. Other great films showcasing his work are Taxi Driver, Cape Fear, Vertigo, The Day The Earth Stood Still and my personal favourite, Citizen Kane.
There is a large amount of documentation, videos and music available on the subject, and it is well worth spending some time exploring at least his better-known soundtracks.
Opening up the toolkit
Bernard Herrmann Composer Toolkit contains an absolute wealth of content, up and beyond Spitfire Audios’ usual generous packaging. Interestingly, they opted to include prerecorded phrases and double-tracked instruments this time, which I felt was a little counterintuitive at first. Phrase-based libraries get my hackles up at the best of times, but after trialling the software for 2-weeks now I understand the reasoning behind this, and in fact, greatly appreciate the new approach Spitfire Audio has taken here.
The style synonymous with Bernard Herrmann can only be captured by applying specific idiosyncrasies to the actual structure of the instruments. A disjoint that is only possible by tailored articulations and layering particular instruments used by the master. You do retain full control of the playstyle of these multi-instruments, of course, but you can’t easily split some bank them into soloists. The phrase section features chords that are one-shot, single dynamic swells that certainly sound great, but prove difficult to apply to anything not specifically written for the chord. Just to be clear, this chord phase effect only applies to a category, not the entire library. The double-instrumentations, however, are closer to 80% of the library.
In keeping with all Spitfire Audio orchestral packs, the entire library has been recorded in the huge Studio 1 at the wonderful Air Studios in London, this time by renowned film sound engineer Simon Rhodes. Unique to this library, the musicians have been conducted in the style of Bernard Herrmann, so everything is capable of being very upfront, bombastic and vigorous when pushed. Each patch includes a large selection of microphone positions you can dial in as you please, including a pair of close mics, outriggers, two Decca trees and an ambient mic. The default patches are lettered A through X, and you get all of the individual articulation split into patches, a good selection of legato patches, time machine and light resource alternatives, plus a wonderful collection of very vintage sounding synth patches tailored for the library.
The key thing to remember with this library is it’s a ‘toolkit’, not so much an orchestra recreation. Yes, you get the full bread-and-butter orchestral patches, but also an excellent selection of FX like stabs, swells and chatter. Some very interesting marcato articulations, trills, brushed spiccato, col legno and the like. Percussion contains your usual suspects, snare, bass drum, timpani – plus a bunch of really strange elements, like exhaust pipes, lion’s roar, ogogoro plates and trash cans.
The first 5 banks are fairly standard string high and low options, but the later banks are far more stylised, such as low strings and horns, flutes and clarinets, harp and vibraphone etc. Some very unusual-looking patches, but recognisable sounding if you are at anyway familiar with his film work. In particular, the low strings and horns are very synonymous with a suspense movie. And while the string patches are great, it’s the unusual horn and woodwinds that give the library its distinctive sound. The abundant choice of FX swells and slides further add interest and character, a toolbox collection this surely is.
Loading the full patches is excruciatingly painful on our ageing IDE drive, mostly taking about 30 seconds each. I think a part of the course of buying this library is a birthday for your PC if it’s not fairly cutting edge to start with – 32GB RAM and SSD drives I would suggest for preventing frustration. The recommended specs for this library are woefully optimistic, suggesting a paltry 8GB RAM – no way.
Of course, everything sounds gorgeous out of the box, but there is a high level of MIDI expression required to make most of the patches sound correct, mostly dynamics and vibrato, but mastering these elements is the key to creating much more lifelike performances. There is a very tactile feel, particularly with the dynamics fader, the larger string sections swell from almost silent to full noise smoothly and predictably. Though each patch may contain up to 8 or 10 articulations, all have been recorded and mixed to perfection so there is almost no discernable timbre change between them. Various extended-expression controls are available to fine-tune your control, such as speed, intensity, release and tightness (for cutting off the sample tail).
Happily, the excellent Ostinatum is included, an arpeggiator or sorts that actually sounds good. On selected short articulations (spicc, shorts, con sord etc) you can apply the generator to make rhythmic vamps and ostinatos. The most distinctive of all the patches for me is the studio orchestral chords. These are the pre-recorded phrase section of the library, containing a massive collection of chord swells, most symbolic of Bernard Herrmann’s style.
The overall sound of the library is quite organic and definitely bombastic. Fine violins and quietness should be left to other libraries like Olafur Arnalds Islands, this is the library for loud bass drums, big horn sections and nasty, distorted synths. I found more than a few patches here and there that ‘feature’ a slight miss tune, breath or player noise recorded in the round-robin – of course all pleasingly adding to the realism. The included synth elements are all deliciously retro, but there is very little synthesis control, just some rudimentary filter, ADSR and LFO controls. You could absolutely layer in extra 3rd party synths for more tonal control, but I think Spitfire Audio has really done a great job with this small, but cleverly curated selection. I did have a chuckle at the manual’s explanation of how the wobble frequency affected the amount of ‘WAB WAB WAB’ applied.
Again, as with all Spitfire Audio sample libraries, I struggle to find any serious, or minor, issues. I’m always wishing for a scalable GUI, but that’s down to the Native Instruments folks to update the venerable Kontakt platform.
The break away from the norm is certainly refreshing, however, a lot of the included embellishments might be over the heads of traditionalists or newcomers. Personally, I have enjoyed every second of learning this new library and have found many new avenues of inspiration and, indeed, interest in following the works of the great man himself. When used as intended there is a strange quirkiness and almost dissonant quality that comes through in your projects, and anyone with any degree of creativity and originality will find this a springboard to new ideas and inspiration. The entrance price is nearly $ 500 USD, which is a lot, but those willing to invest will be in great company with the many world-class score writers, film score composers and musicians who use these libraries on a daily basis.
This is an interesting approach, opting for a very stylised collection rather than your typical orchestral basics. It opens up many avenues for future products based on the theme, perhaps other early film and TV composers, or perhaps some of the contemporary greats, who knows. Bernard Herrmann’s style might not suit everyone’s taste, and he certainly ran against the grain in the day, I think this is one of the best such collections available, precisely because of the stylised nature – and finally (hands to the sky), an orchestral collection with some real character and vibe.
More information and full purchasing options over on Spitfire Audio’s site right here www.spitfireaudio.com